Checking out Yellowstone National Park as autumn arrives.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Yellowstone put out the welcome mat for me, in its own peculiar way. The welcoming committee: a lovelorn elk and a buffalo with attitude. Only here they call them bison, the more scientific name.
The sun was sinking toward the top of the Rockies as I arrived at the park’s West Entrance on Wednesday after a full day of learning to fly fish – my first time – on the Gallatin River, up around Big Sky, Montana. (Did better than I expected, thanks to the Brad Pitt-style lucky hat my guide loaned me; but that’s another story.)
On my way to Yellowstone’s Madison Campground, I encountered my first roadside mob scene – cars jamming a pullout and others pulling to the shoulder. As many readers tipped me off, I knew this meant roadside wildlife.
By that time, though, I’d had a very long day, rising at 6 and wading in the river until almost 4. I really needed to cook dinner at my campsite before dark. So I didn’t stop, but peered as I drove slowly past. Someone who looked like my elderly auntie was trying to get a photo with her phone.
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And there were elk, just a few feet from the roadside. Getting the most attention was a bull elk who was furiously ramming a small pine tree, entangling his antlers in the branches.
This is rutting season for elk, and his action had the look of “Nobody will mate with me, so I’m going to wreck this tree!” As I drove slowly past, I heard the first elk bugle I’ve ever heard: a thin wail, perhaps echoing with notes of sexual frustration.
By the time I spotted him there was no place to stop the van, so I didn’t get a photo.
A mile or so down the road came another uniquely Yellowstone moment. A line of traffic was slowed from the other direction. At its head was a huge bison, strolling precisely along the white line at the side of the two-lane blacktop. Just strolling, like he was going to the corner for cigarettes. He was in no hurry, so why should anybody else be? The traffic backup behind him went on – no exaggeration — for miles.
Unhappily, again, I was at the wheel and in no position to grab a photo. (Happily, the bison wasn’t in my lane.)
Just beyond that, on my right the Madison River Valley opened up into a broad expanse of pretty grassland and riffled, meandering river backed by rugged hillsides, all aglow in the evening sun. A small roadside parking lot was so crowded it had park employees in orange vests directing traffic. I saw elk in the meadows, but I’ve seen elk before, and the lot was already packed.
But after I passed, I spied the show-stopper. Out ahead of the others, a lone bull elk with giant antlers waving in the golden light – a rack big enough for a whole squadron of park rangers to hang their flat hats – strode along the glistening river. Magnificent.
Exercising good park-visitor etiquette, I signaled and sedately pulled over to a wide shoulder well off the highway, with plenty of room for my little van.
But before I could grab the camera I looked in my mirror and saw an orange-vested ranger, 100 feet behind me, waving his arm at me to keep moving. He was frowning and coming my way at a good clip.
So I sedately signaled, pulled back on the road and drove on, with only a mental picture to share with you.
I sympathize with park rangers who have to deal with overwhelming crowds and traffic – especially after a crazy-busy summer like the one just past — and though I was pulled over in a perfectly safe spot I’m sure he feared the copycat phenomenon: Everybody pulls to the shoulder and in combination it becomes chaos. The bottom line is that with big crowds and heavy traffic (which I’m definitely still finding here in mid-September, even though it snowed 8 inches earlier this week), serendipity suffers.
I encountered a happier ranger that evening giving a bonfire talk about the park’s bison, which weigh up to a ton each and can stand 6 feet tall at the hump.
They can run as fast as 35 mph, she said, so don’t mess with ’em. (You can’t run much faster than 10 mph.)
The bison rut having just ended, with thousands of them partying in the park’s Hayden and Lamar valleys in late August, she tended to dwell on that aspect of the beasts. Other bison facts she cited:
- Big bulls curl their lip to test if a female’s urine indicates she’s ready for breeding (and doesn’t that sound a bit like some guys you knew in college?). (OK, the ranger didn’t say that last part.)
- At mating season, bison bulls roll in their own urine to really get sexy.
- Bulls are so obsessed with mating that they might not eat or sleep for six weeks.
- Calves are born in what’s called synchronous birthing; after the first cow in a bison herd gives birth, all the young of the herd are born within a day or two, so they’re all the same age. Friendships among such peers may last a lifetime.
When the calves are a year old and it’s time for Mom to give birth again, the mother shoves the yearlings out on their own, the ranger told us.
“The yearlings are kind of like kindergartners on the first day of school, like ‘What happened? What happened?’ ”
Another ranger, Steve Cook, said a bull bison is all “big horns and bad attitude.”
He told of an acquaintance with a brand new Ford pickup who encountered a big bull bison on the road and stopped to wait for it. She waited, and waited some more, while the bison stood nonchalantly in the roadway.
“And suddenly he turned and BAM, rammed the front of the truck. And then just walked away. How do you explain that to your insurance company?”
It’s all part of the fascinating natural-history education one gets in Yellowstone, America’s first national park. And, as Cook quipped, you might want to drive a rental when you come.
NEXT: Geysers and mud pots and waterfalls, oh my.